8 thoughts about government communications during South East Queensland’s summer storms
A few weeks ago I was moaning to a fellow cricket fan about the fact that Brisbane always has the first test match of the summer, usually in late November. This year it meant the Gabba hosted a test against New Zealand rather than a test later in the summer against the more fancied India. “Well, we have to host the first test of the summer because we never get 5 days of dry weather in a row past December” he replied. He was spot on.
Just over a year after 2011’s devastating floods, the #bigwet was back on 24-25 January with torrential rain and flash flooding affecting South East Queensland. Most areas received 300mm of rain in 24 hours, with some areas receiving more than 400mm in that period. To put that into perspective, London’s annual rainfall is around 650mm. Dozens of roads and schools were closed and the emergency services were kept busy with many incidents occurring across the region.
Here are 8 thoughts I had while monitoring social media from local and state government departments during the #bigwet in January 2012.
1) Use social media for resilience
During times of crisis, disaster or emergency, government websites can receive a much higher level of demand than usual in a very short space of time. Servers can crash or not respond which is very frustrating for both staff and the public.
On Wednesday 25 January, both Sunshine Coast Council and Moreton Bay Council were experiencing issues with their websites for several hours. They directed people to follow their updates on Facebook during this time where they posted vital information about road closures and sandbagging depots.
Facebook can provide some much needed resilience in these situations. It’s been reported that Facebook has upwards of 60,000 servers so it’s unlikely to suffer from any issues during a regional emergency situation.
Another advantage in terms of resilience is the fact that key staff can update social media sites at home or on mobile devices if they are unable to make it into the office due to events of if they have no remote access to systems.
Disasters and emergencies don’t respect boundaries on a map. Monitor the hashtags used by other agencies during an emergency or disaster and if appropriate, use the same hashtags for your updates. Even better, collaborate with colleagues from other government social media teams and agree on a common approach to hashtags for these events.
3) Benchmark your response against others
If neighbouring councils or other government departments are tweeting or posting Facebook updates about an event that affects your region, chances are you should be too. One council posted details of their road closures several hours after neighbouring councils, by which time this information was already available from other news sources.
4) Know the medium you are using
A Facebook update from the same council mentioned above read… “The recent rain has affected some roads in [name of town]. For any enquiries, please contact us on [phone number] for a list of currently affected roads.”
If people are looking for updates via social media, they probably don’t want to ring up. Naturally, responses from the public weren’t very positive. They included “Is it too hard to post the list here?” and “I don’t have time to sit on the phone…. please post them on the website and link it to fb…. thank you!!”.
(I’m glad to say the council in question did recover well from a slow response on the social media front and went on to post a lot more information, links and photos throughout the afternoon and evening.)
5) The public expects social media use
If you have an official Facebook page or Twitter stream, the public expect you to use it. If you don’t have any social media channels, the public will be wondering why.
Some organisations with a social media presence aren’t using it to anywhere near its full potential. For example, there are cases where Twitter is still being used as a glorified RSS feed – one way communication with no interaction with followers. I have asked my council a couple of questions on Twitter over the last few months. I’ve never received a reply.
As someone who has worked in local and state government in both the UK and Australia, I know there are probably all sorts of reasons for this lack of engagement. Management reluctance, time poor communications staff and social media not being part of anyone’s job description are all possibilities. I understand this, however, in the future the public may not be quite so forgiving.
6) Reinforce existing messages
There were regular references to the Queensland Government’s high profile “If it’s flooded, forget it!” campaign, which warns the public about the dangers of driving or walking through flood water.
Many different government agencies reinforced this message – some even using it as a hashtag #ifitsfloodedforgetit. The message was further spread by members of the public in their tweets.
7) Go to where your audience is
Facebook is now a major news source for the public. According to a study by Lightspeed Research in November 2011, 15% of the public uses Facebook as a regular news source during the week, increasing to 30% in the 18-24 age bracket.
By using social media channels, you are going to where a large percentage of your audience already is – invaluable in an emergency or disaster situation.
8) Facebook – to allow posts on your wall or not?
Do you allow the public to create posts on your wall? Most of the government agencies I monitored don’t, they only allow likers to comment on their official posts.
Two Facebook pages that do allow you to post on their wall are Queensland’s Department of Education and Training (DET) which announced state school closures during the #bigwet and Brisbane City Council which allows likers to create posts, and upload photos and videos.
Reaction seemed to be mixed on allowing the public to post. On the DET Facebook site, there were many credible updates about school closures from members of the public which others had thanked them for, however I also saw 3 people complain that they couldn’t easily see official updates by DET as the page had been swamped by other posts. Of course, there is a filter to just show official posts at the top of the Facebook wall, but not everyone seemed to know that.
This raised a further question in my mind, what is the best way to crowd source information during a disaster or emergency event?